Women's Activism NYC

Lina Odou

1853 - 1919

By: Rhonda Heise Asher | Date Added:

Lina D. Odou thought it wasn’t just the sick and injured who should be delicately cared for, but the deceased too. And, she knew the people to prepare the dead for funerals could be women, even though the work at that time was exclusively performed by men. As an experienced nurse in her 40s, Odou acquired embalming skills for herself and opened the first embalming school for women in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. She provided not only a needed service for families who lost loved ones, but also career opportunities when options for women were limited. Embalming was practiced in the United States during the American Civil War in the 1860s when bodies of fallen soldiers were embalmed at field stations so they could be sent to their families for burial at home. President Lincoln was embalmed after he was killed, and not only did people pay respects to his preserved body on display, but the funeral procession from Washington D.C. to Illinois was covered in American newspapers. Embalming became popular in the United States, and the work became a profession for men. While all that was happening in the States, Lina Odou was still a girl, far away in Europe. Born in Spain to Swiss-French parents, she attended school in London. As a teenager, she met Florence Nightingale, and that meeting influenced Odou’s life. She trained as a nurse, served with the Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), worked among the poor in the London slums, and provided private medical care to wealthy families. When her brother moved to the Dakota Territory on the American plains, Odou joined him. The frontier didn’t suit her, however, and she moved to New York City. Odou worked for the St. John’s Guild Hospital, a charity that cared for sick children in the city “without regard to color, creed, or nationality.” It’s likely in this work that Odou heard the desperate request from mothers for women to embalm their daughters and young children who had passed away. The request that the deceased be handled with delicacy and dignity made sense to Odou. Embalmers at the time had a rough reputation, and she asked, “Why would this work be left entirely to men?” Odou recognized a need she could fulfill. Odou set out to study embalming in Europe and the United States, and by 1898 she had not only acquired the skills and knowledge to do the work, she was ready to teach other women. Odou went into business with a well-known funeral company in New York City, setting up a training school with 10 women initially enrolled under her instruction. Only those applicants with a “healthy nervous system and high moral character” were accepted. In 1901, with $2000 in capital, she incorporated a school on her own, the L.D. Odou Embalming Institute, the sole embalming school at that time for women.

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